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Friday, January 13, 2017

Los Ofendidos: Shedding Light on Human Rights Injustices in El Salvador

This past fall, University of Minnesota Graduate student Paula Cuellar, presented a screening of “Los Ofendidos”, a film that covered topics of armed conflict and human rights abuses during the civil war in El Salvador from 1980 to 1992. The screening was followed by a Q&A session with torture survivor Neris Gonzalez, who provided her own personal testimonies and recollections of the war.

Though the military occupation of El Salvador ended in 1992, the fight for social justice is far from over. Los Ofendidos explained that the injustices suffered throughout this war were due to institutionalized violence coming from the rightist government. Many citizens who were considered leftists or a “threat to the government” were seized, held captive, and tortured by the Salvadoran National Guard.

In essence, the Salvadoran civil war was a government-led attack against its own people. When the war ended, Guerilla forces met with the government and reached a peace deal. This deal ended the conflict and granted amnesty to perpetrators of violence on both sides. While this was central to ending the violence, it conveniently left voiceless the victims of these human rights injustices.

Even today, the rhetoric of the government is focused on indirectly telling victims of this war to move past their trauma, Neris says. War survivors still living are told by their government that El Salvador has too many problems today to focus on events from 20 years ago. While it is true that El Salvador has problems even today, the dismissal of the crimes committed against innocent people has only furthered the violence. Military groups that were prevalent during the civil conflict have evolved into the gangs which continue to terrorize civilians and coerce the government into bending at their will.

While the violence was contained to El Salvador, the war was an international affair. The government-led hate groups perpetrating this violence, mainly La Hacienda, or the Office of Financial Affairs, kept tabs on civilians thought to be “subversives”. To be a subversive meant to be committing acts against the government, which could include mobilizing other civilians in protest, teaching others how to read and count, and being a doctor injured people without making them compensate you. For teaching her neighbors how to read and count, Neris was held captive by the National Guard and tortured for two weeks before eventually being released. She has since devoted her life to seeking justice for the horrors committed against her and other victims of armed conflict.

Fortunately, with mobilization and pressure from people like Neris, changes are being made. Two months ago, the 1992 Salvadoran amnesty act that protected and absolved war criminals and government leaders central to human rights injustices committed during the war was finally declared unconstitutional. This action is a huge step forward in the fight for justice. Bringing these injustices to light today creates a dialogue focused around the victims of torture, and finally gives the affected people the voice that was stolen from them.

On April 4th, 2016, Neris was one of four plaintiffs that brought the two main leaders of violence, Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and José Guillermo Garcia, to justice. The generals were hiding out in the United States, and Neris and the other plaintiffs successfully got them deported to El Salvador where they will finally be brought to justice for perpetrating the violation of human rights. We are grateful to Neris for her visit to the University of Minnesota and to Paula for her continuing efforts in shedding light on these human rights violations in El Salvador.

To learn more about Paula and the incredible work she is doing to help shed light on these injustices, please read this December 2016 article published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

~Written by Selma Demirovich